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The largest organic farming confluence in the world – over 2,500 participants from 22 states of India – gathered at the National Organic Convention in Chandigarh from Feb 28 to March 2, 2015. The flood of registrations had to be stopped a month in advance. Such zeal surely signals the growing recognition of agro-ecology as a burning imperative of our times, reflecting the Convention aim to ‘Mainstream Organic Farming!’

At the concluding session, Shri Prakash Singh Badal, Chief Minister of the frontline state of India’s ‘Green Revolution’, ironically hailed organic agriculture as “the need of the hour,” marking the full turn of a circle. He mourned the heavy burden of chemical poisons that the land, farmers and people of Punjab have had to bear, admitting sadly that “Mother Earth, Father Water, and Guru Air” have all been desecrated. Toxic pesticides have devastated the health of Punjab. “You people,” said Badal – addressing a packed auditorium of organic farmers, seed savers, ecologists, scientists and activists – “are the heroes of this new struggle to save the nation!”

The CM called for making Punjab the leading organic farming state of India, with diversification in place of present extensive monocultures. Announcing a 50% state subsidy for rearing indigenous cattle breeds, he also offered to provide retail/distribution shops and facilities for selling organic produce. Declaring the setting up of an Organic Farming Board, he promised panchayati land to set up a demonstration organic farm in every block of the State.

Earlier, at the Convention, Shri Manohar Lal Khattar, Chief Minister of Haryana, accompanied by his Agriculture Minister, pledged state support to turn at least 10% of its total cultivable land to organic farming. Smt Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister of Women and Child Welfare, rang out a grim warning against the highly dangerous neo-nicotinoid pesticides (used for treating Bt Cotton seeds) that were slaughtering the pollinating creatures like bees, an estimated 70% of which have already been wiped out. This would severely harm agriculture, unless banned, as in the European Union. “The owners of Bt cotton lied to us,” declared the Minister. “They told us that it doesn’t require pesticides… but now, we find that Bt cotton cannot grow without the most dangerous pesticides in the world.”

A few years ago, the beacon IAASTD World Agriculture Report bluntly stated: “Business as usual is not an option!” Prepared over 4 years by 400 international agricultural scientists/experts and 1,000 multi-disciplinary reviewers, this Report was endorsed by 58 nations, including India, as also representatives of FAO, World Bank, World Health Organization, UNEP, UNDP. Its recommendations stressed the urgency to adopt bio-diverse agro-ecological farming, and to support small family farms – to overcome the many serious problems confronting world agriculture. GM crops, it added, are not an answer to hunger, poverty and climate change, or to ecological, energy and economic challenges.

A riot of colours, costumes, cultures and cuisines greeted visitors at the ‘Nature and Kisan Mela’ and its ‘Organic Food Festival’ and ‘Biodiversity Festival’ that continued alongside the deliberations of the National Organic Convention. The Organic Food Festival, with ethnic organic fare from several Indian states, was a big hit. The Biodiversity Festival presented a dazzling display of over 2,000 distinct seed varieties of crops, brought by 270 seed conservator-farmers from all over India. Half a dozen new publications were released. Several book stalls, film screenings and cultural programmes of song, music and dance enhanced the charm of the memorable Organic Mela, dampened a bit midway by rain and wind.

The Convention was jointly organized by the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI), Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), and Kheti Virasat Mission, in collaboration with the local host organization, the National Institute of Technical Teachers Training and Research (NITTTR). The deliberations were bilingual, with communications in Hindi translated into English for the participants from the south, and vice versa. Parallel translations into other regional languages – for those who understood neither Hindi nor English – were self-organised by the various state delegations.

The National Organic Convention simultaneously hosted meetings of the Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch (India Seed Sovereignty Alliance). This pledged to regenerate and widely share the enormously rich diversity of traditional crops and crop varieties in India as a collective open-source heritage belonging to all, free of any private/corporate Intellectual Property Rights. The Alliance also sought to reclaim the many thousands of native crop varieties collected from farmers all over India by national and international germplasm banks. It was suggested that every farmer or family should adopt at least one crop variety for decentralized on-farm seed conservation and open-source propagation.

In sharp contrast, Mr Swapan Dutta, Dy Director General, ICAR, declared a few years ago in an interview to the Wall Street Journal, that India had over 4,00,000 varieties of plant germplasm (both cultivated and uncultivated). These included crops with unique features like nutritional/medicinal qualities, drought tolerance, flood tolerance, salinity tolerance, and pest resistance, all of which it was willing to offer corporates for a small share of profits!

GM crops were categorically rejected as an unnecessary technology with numerous potential hazards. The serious contamination risk by recently sanctioned open field trials of GM crops – disregarding the recommendations of several Government, Parliament and Supreme Court appointed Committees – was warned.

Also part of the National Organic Convention was a scientific conference organized by the Society of Agro-Ecology, and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. This saw scientists from prime research institutions discussing with farmers and farmer-scientists their observations and research on soil health, plant nutrition, plant protection, water management, and Iivestock development, especially indigenous breeds.

With so many outstanding farmers around, and multiple parallel sessions on offer, participants felt they could barely whet their appetite. But they carried back a collective energy and renewed confidence, knowing they had a growing fellow community of organic pilgrims and path-finders they could call upon when needed.

Missing the vibrant presence of veterans like Nammalwar, who passed away last year, and of ailing Bhaskar Save, who completed 93 years in January 2015, the 5th National Biennial Organic Convention paid tribute to these towering, dedicated stalwarts, noting that they have inspired innumerable others on the natural, organic path. Tribute was also paid to Sir Albert Howard, considered ‘the father of sustainable agriculture’ in the west, who confessed more than a century ago that he learnt it all from humble peasants in India.

In 2016, the international community will return to draw fresh inspiration from India. It was announced that the ‘International Organic Farming Convention’ organized by the ‘International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements’ (IFOAM) will be held that year in India.

The final 16 point declaration from the convention pledged to safeguard and regenerate our soil, water, forests, biodiversity and seed sovereignty; and to work towards mainstreaming ecological farming in the country as “the only way forward for meeting the nutritional, livelihood, socio-cultural and spiritual needs of our people, including those of future generations.”

The Convention further declared that land under food cultivation must not be diverted for other purposes through forced land acquisition.

PM Narendra Modi called for the North-eastern and hilly states to become an organic hub. But ‘achhe din’ (good organic days) must include all of India! What we need to ‘Make in India’ is an agro-ecological paradise that gratifies all basic biological, aesthetic and spiritual needs, not a global factory for a growing array of resource-hogging and pollution-spewing, non-essential industrial and consumerist goods.

The overarching eco-spiritual tradition of this land is the unity of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the earth is one family in one home. Mother Earth, the only known cosmic body with a living biosphere, must not now become a spew-chamber of chemical-industrial toxins, her inner vitals vandalized for short-sighted economic growth. The organic community is waking to the enormous challenges ahead.

Related reading: Declaration of the Organic Farmers community of India at the 5th National Organic Farmers’ Convention, 2015, Chandigarh, India

Guest post by Bharat Mansata

On one hand, we have glowing reports of the growth in agriculture, particularly horticulture.

Horticultural vs foodgrain production in India from 2002 to 2014
Horticultural vs foodgrain production in India from 2002 to 2014. Source: Ministry of Agriculture, FY 2014 figures are provisional.

On the other, we have "Rural wage growth lowest in 10 years, signals farm distress, falling inflation".

Annual rural wage growth from September 2007 to November 2014
Annual rural wage growth from September 2007 to November 2014

To me, this indicates that farmers are doing more for less. Add to this the drastic disinterest in schemes like NREGA, reduced legal restrictions for land grabs for large projects and the undermining of the right to refuse, India seems headed for widespread rural devastation in coming years. Even where work is done, 70% of MNREGA payments have not been made this year.

I hope I am wrong.

One way to remove poverty is to improve the lives of the poor. Another way to remove poverty is to exploit the poor into extinction. Successive Indian governments seem headed for the latter. Each outdoing the previous.

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In 2006, I attended an event of ISABS. I had just returned to Mumbai after spending several years in the mountains, and was still missing rural life. So when the community turned out to have two activists from rural Andhra Pradesh, who also happened to share the room next to mine, I tended to prefer their company

They were from Timbaktu. Kidding you not. It is a real place in/near Anantpur. The name caught my fancy, and I was curious. Dinesh also had vast knowledge of flora and fauna, which was very interesting.

Till then I knew zero about the agrarian crisis. I was rural, but hey, it doesn't get lush greener than Himachal (on this side of the rain shadow). Drought was something from black and white films or at worst, lesser crop for a year. Climate problems were more like snow being late, which meant a lower crop for the apples, but not the end of the world. "These activist types exaggerate everything" I thought, but it was better to "over care" about these things than the crap I was finding in the city anyway. By crap, I mean the average city attitude of not being bothered about the world around them, which was very garish after my long stay in the villages and wilds.

So I gravitated toward Dinesh and the colleague of his, Ashish who were attending, because they were rural folk. I enjoyed their company and thought all was good.

On the contrary, Ashish hit out at me viciously (verbally) saying stuff like he couldn't relate with the "likes of me" in the middle of some conversation. Very puzzling, because I liked him. So I asked him, and he spoke of inequality, and I was one of the "haves" - a callous person who lived in plenty while people died of hunger. I was astonished. It was unreasonable. I was the one in the torn shorts. Not him. Dinesh was the one with the laptop. So I challenged him on how I was a have and Dinesh or he weren't.

And out it came pouring. Difficulties farmers face because cities develop, and policies follow them, and so on. Farmers committing suicide because of failing crops and overwhelming debt. Lack of facilities to support agriculture, lack of water. It sounded like a tough deal, but I pointed out that I had led a rural life too, and was certainly not one of the "haves" as he said. If I had a choice, it would definitely favor the rural India.

We got along well after that, but I never forgot that blaze of anger. It made me curious as to what deprivation this person was seeing that he held me responsible for. What was it that was arousing such feelings? And I found out. I asked him, heard hours and hours worth his thoughts, stories, fears, concerns... there was little happiness.

They spoke of efforts for saving indigenous seeds, farming methods, loans, credit, weather, crop cycles, people committing suicide, indigenous species, genetically modified crops and such. I hadn't thought of eating genetically modified food till then. I was totally amazed to know that I was already doing it. The farmers suicides sounded surreal. Frankly, I didn't believe them. Who would commit suicide because of a crop failing? Try again next year!

I was naive, but I learned. And I came home and learned more (that part you know. I just dig in till I find out). News speaking of farmers, suicides, agriculture, and rural India in general started catching my attention and I followed it vaguely. Over time, I started developing some understanding of what was happening.

I am glad that I got on this track, because till then, I simply wasn't aware of most of India and its realities. Things take on a new context when you are thinking of a whole rather than a permanently segmented view or worse, a small cross section and imagining it to be representative of the whole. It helped me understand various objections and "anti-progress" attitudes that later turned out to be disagreements by people representing thoughts of significant populations on the publicized popular views.

India is a diverse country, and this learning curve helps me understand some of that diversity.